By Daniel Silliman
His toenails were cracked and yellow. Callouses covered his heels and corns enveloped the tops of his toes.
Gary Stewart, an orthopedic doctor who specializes in podiatry, took the man's gnarled right foot in his gloved hands, holding it softly in his lap.
"What are you doing, during the day?" Stewart asked.
"I walk a lot," said Pete, a homeless man.
"You have any problems with your feet, that you know about?" Stewart asked.
"I got diabetes," Pete said. "So, I got diabetes feet."
"Yes," said the doctor. "You do."
Stewart treated the man's feet, carefully clipping the nails and examining the corns, advising him of low-cost treatments, and listing things for which he, as a diabetic, should watch.
When Pete stood up, Stewart pulled off his white plastic gloves, threw them in the trash, and pulled out another pair, calling for the next patient. Forest McMahan, of McMahan's Shoes, in Decatur, fitted Pete with a fresh pair of white socks and white tennis shoes, size 11 1/2.
Together, at Calvary Refuge Center in Forest Park, this week, the duo worked in assembly-line fashion as a team, treating and fitting, examining feet and giving away shoes.
Working under the auspices of Our Hearts to Your Soles and Souls4Soles, the pair treated patients and gave away dozens of pairs of new shoes at the Clayton County homeless shelter. Stewart has participated in the annual, free, foot screening for the homeless for four years now. He said the non-profit group, founded in Pittsburgh, Pa., as a school project, seeks to help America's homeless, starting with their feet.
State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro), a board member at Calvary Refuge, said providing orthopedic care and shoes is a much needed and often-overlooked need of the homeless.
"When you understand the homeless population," Glanton said, "you understand that their greatest asset is their feet. They're out all day, walking around. They're looking for jobs. They're looking for food. They're looking for shelter ... We definitely have a need here."
McMahan and Stewart agree that a lot of the problems homeless people have with their feet come from ill-fitting shoes. "Most of them have the wrong-sized shoes," said McMahan, holding a pair of brand-new work boots. "They just like them snug. They jam their toes in there, and it causes problems."
Stewart, examining another pair of feet, notes the results of tightly fitting shoes: Deformed feet. "You see how the toes are all on top of each other?" he asked.
"Yeah," said the man, who has been working part-time in construction and recently found his feet hurting after he stood in water all day.
"They messed up," he said.
"Your shoes are too small," Stewart said. "We need to fit you for shoes. See if we can get you into a size larger."
Stewart said most people don't properly take care of their feet, and the need for professional orthopedic care is even greater for the homeless.
"When you get our friends here, who are in a little bit of a situation anyway, they just can't take care of their feet. They want to, it's just hard," he said.
Most of the problems the doctor diagnosed, during the impromptu clinic, came down to wear-and-tear and improper shoes. The homeless were sensitive about their feet, calling them "weird," "messed up," and "dirty. They hesitated to show Stewart their feet, wanting a new pair of shoes, but not wanting to take off their old pair and bare their soles to the doctor.
Stewart reassured them, telling them he looks at feet all day. He told them they just needed better shoes, that their feet were fine and looked normal. One man, hovering in the hallway and looking at the boxes of new shoes, said he didn't want to go in and take his shoes off.
"No," he said, "I just got off of work."
Stewart chuckled. "Yeah?" he said. "Me too," and McMahan coaxed the man into the room, at least for a shoe fitting.
A woman, her nails painted a metallic pink, sat down in the chair in front of Stewart.
"Before you start," she said. "My feet are ticklish."
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